A Month of Ireland: The Magic, Faerie-Hunting Cat Named Pangur Bán

Last week I provided a very dark but beautiful bit of poetry about the faeries stealing away a child.  This week, my Irish-themed post has a slightly happier note.  As previous posts have mentioned, there is a cartoon called The Secret of Kells about the writing of the Book of Kells.  In that film is a cat named Pangur Bán, white with one blue eye and one green eye.  Multicolored eyes indicate magic, as we all know.  So today, we will talk more about what it means to have a magic cat.

The original cat Pangur Bán (he was real!) exists for us in the pages of a 9th century Irish manuscript.  An Irish monk reflects on how his own struggle for words compares to the hunting of his “whiter than white” cat.

Messe ocus Pangur Bán,
cechtar nathar fria saindan
bíth a menmasam fri seilgg
mu menma céin im saincheirdd.
    . . .
I and Pangur Bán my cat
Tis a like task we are at:
Hunting mice is his delight,
Hunting words I sit all night.

The thing about magic cats is they have a tendency to show up in unexpected places.  This Irish cat now lives in my house.

pangur ban white green eye blue eyeThe other thing about magic cats is that they do not see the world the way other cats do.  Pangur Bán’s eyes are her gift and her curse.  She sees our world with her blue eye, the mundane eye.  However, with her green eye, she sees the faeries.

Pangur Bán’s eternal battle with the invisible house faeries has been going on for months now.  She hunts them, chases them, and pounces on them, but our house is overrun.  Fortunately, Pangur Bán refuses to give up, and her hunt for the faeries continues.


The Pangur Bán of the 9th century hunted mice, so says the poem, but he, too, was a magic cat.  He had the ability to inspire his master to write. It is through observing his cat that the anonymous Irish monk is able to conclude:

pangur ban

He fesin as choimsid dáu
in muid dungní cach oenláu
du thabairt doraid du glé
for mu mud cein am messe.
                   . . .
Practice every day has made
Pangur perfect in his trade;
I get wisdom day and night
Turning darkness into light.

(Translation by Robin Flowers)

The Irish monks of this man’s time were facing many years of darkness – literary darkness, that is. They are responsible for preserving much of the early literature that we value so much today. They were writers and readers, lovers of books, masters of their craft of illumination. You know a true book-lover when he not only writes the book, but he is driven to make it beautiful.

This poem is so especially beloved not just because it is such a strange little bit of writing tucked in the margins of a manuscript.  It also shows us just a glimpse of man’s thoughts aside from his long hours of writing down and preserving valuable texts.  Over a thousand years ago, a man sits at his desk and struggles to find inspiration and to use just the right words.  Another translation of the first verse by Seamus Heaney:

Pangur Bán and I at work,
Adepts, equals, cat and clerk:
His whole instinct is to hunt,
Mine to free the meaning pent.
How many times has any one of us sat in front of a blank screen or stared at a page, pen in hand, and struggled to free the meaning trapped in our thoughts?  If we could just find the right words, the story would come to life.
Pangur Bán may seem to be no more than a small white cat, but this cat has managed to travel through time to tell a very simple, but universal story of the writer’s experience.  A magic cat, indeed! Although the author of this poem is nameless, he has given us a name to remember.  It seems, thanks to his cat, he found his words, after all.
pangur ban cat rabbit friends
Pangur Ban makes friends with the evil Bella Bunny.

A Month of Ireland: The Faeriescape

It’s March, St Patrick’s month, so why not do a few posts on Ireland to celebrate?  I personally have a heavy dose of Northern Irish on my mother’s side (as I discovered when I found her maiden name on nearly every tombstone of a church in Portadown).

And of course, there’s the fact that I am very, very fond of early Irish literature. So was the poet William Butler Yeats, who, aside from poetry, wrote a book called Celtic Twilight, which explores the existence of faeries (Yeats was a believer) and their connection to Ireland.  Yeats’s fascination with Irish magic came through into his poetry as well. I’ve always enjoyed one in particular, haunting and mysterious, about a child being lured away by the faeries.  When I was in Ireland, I was amazed at the enchanted landscapes that we passed through.  It was much easier to see why Yeats was so convinced that faeries lived in the forests.

So, to start the month of Ireland off right, a poem about faeries and some lovely pictures.

(And for a real treat, listen to Loreena McKennit’s version of this poem set to music!)

misty mountains ireland

“The Stolen Child”

WHERE dips the rocky highland
Of Sleuth Wood in the lake,
There lies a leafy island
Where flapping herons wake
The drowsy water rats;
There we’ve hid our faery vats,
Full of berrys
And of reddest stolen cherries.
Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.

pond portadown ireland

Where the wave of moonlight glosses
The dim gray sands with light,
Far off by furthest Rosses
We foot it all the night,
Weaving olden dances
Mingling hands and mingling glances
Till the moon has taken flight;
To and fro we leap
And chase the frothy bubbles,
While the world is full of troubles
And anxious in its sleep.
Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.

tree tunnel northern ireland

Where the wandering water gushes
From the hills above Glen-Car,
In pools among the rushes
That scarce could bathe a star,
We seek for slumbering trout
And whispering in their ears
Give them unquiet dreams;
Leaning softly out
From ferns that drop their tears
Over the young streams.
Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.

mountain of mist northern ireland

Away with us he’s going,
The solemn-eyed:
He’ll hear no more the lowing
Of the calves on the warm hillside
Or the kettle on the hob
Sing peace into his breast,
Or see the brown mice bob
Round and round the oatmeal chest.
For he comes, the human child,
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping than he can understand.

~ William Butler Yeats

Faith and Faerie: Reflections of Another World

When I was asked to do a devotional for today’s post, I really didn’t know which direction to turn.  For someone who loves fantasy, the works of Lewis are an obvious choice for an intertwining of faith and faerie. But Lewis’s brilliance has its sources, and I thought that perhaps one of Lewis’s favorite writers, George MacDonald, would be of service in this discussion, as well.  In Mere Christianity, Lewis says:

If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.

mist irelandAs Christians, we know that “another world” is the heavenly kingdom, but as we are, for now, separated from that future dwelling, we are left with promises and our imagination.  For many of us, exploring and creating fantasy worlds can temporarily satiate the driving need to find “another world” to which we truly belong.  But Faerie Lands can play the role of more than just escapism; they can both act is a reflection of Reality and become that faintest of connections to “another world” which compels us forward in our walk toward it.

The fantasies and faerie worlds that we construct, no matter how wonderful, are still impermanent.  The kind of fantasy that MacDonald, Lewis, and many others strive to write is a kind which attempts to draw us out of our immediate Reality and take us to another world, but only temporarily.  Then, like a mirror, these worlds begin to reflect our Reality in a different form, and we can’t help thinking that some of these enchanted landscapes seem very familiar. Inexorably, we are drawn back into our own world, but when we return, we understand something of our world better, while the yearning for another world remains, perhaps stronger than ever.reflections isle of skye loch

MacDonald says in Phantastes:

Why are all reflections lovelier than what we call the reality? – not so grand or so strong, it may be, but always lovelier?  Fair as is the gliding sloop on the shining sea, the wavering, trembling, unresting sail below is fairer still.  Yea, the reflecting ocean itself, reflected in the mirror, has a wondrousness about its waters that somewhat vanishes when I turn towards itself.  All mirrors are magic mirrors.  The commonest room is a room in a poem when I turn to the glass.

castle scotland craigmillarA beautiful reflection is exactly what MacDonald strives for in his depiction of Faerie Land.  With lush descriptions, strange and surreal, whimsical and lovely, MacDonald draws his wandering hero into the depths of Faerie and compels us along with him.

But as with all reflections, there is a place where they join with Reality.  We can be in one and touch the other.  MacDonald’s Faerie Land is not meant to stand entirely apart:

As through the hard rock go the branching silver veins; as into the solid land run the creeks and gulfs from the unresting sea; as the lights and influences of the upper worlds sink silently through the earth’s atmosphere; so doth Faerie invade the world of men, and sometimes startle the common eye with an association as of cause and effect, when between the two no connecting links can be traced.

From the very beginning, Faerie is intertwined with our world.  It reflects our own world, but it also connects us to another.  It both satisfies and increases our longing for that Other World that we know exists.  And so, if this fantasy world as MacDonald portrays it – a reflection of Reality and an echo of something greater beyond it – if this is not only accessible, but ever-present, then we might begin to realize that its higher Form, that Other World that we all long for, is also in our midst.  The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand, tangible, glorious, the source of all deep magic, drawing us further into it.

This is why I find Faerie and fantasy so beautiful and so satisfying: they have the ability to reflect our Reality while simultaneously summoning forth faint, but glorious images of the true Other World.  The best Faerie stories form a connection between us and what we were made for.

Let There Be Mist: In Which I Have Found Yet Another Otherworldly Access Point That I Will Probably Never Be Able To Use

My world is constricting into a single, obsessive focus on the Otherworld in Irish and Welsh mythology.  I lie awake at night trying to sort it out in my head and dream about how tragically terrible my first paper is so far (wait, that’s actually real…).  I touched earlier on the theme of the immram, the overseas voyage to the Otherworld.  That story-type has been a focus for me lately because my first major paper (due next January, which is, you know, just around the corner!) is on the water-related aspects of the Otherworld.

The Otherworld in both Irish and Welsh stories is often portrayed over the sea or on an island in a lake, or sometimes beneath a lake (remember the “watery tart” in the pond that threw a sword at King Arthur?).  Water also plays a part in the form of a mystic fountain or well, which translated nicely into the holy wells of a more Christian age.

A mysterious mist descended during my time in the Scottish countryside...

One other form of water, though, that appears in a lot of the stories is mist.  Mist, as I’m sure you are aware (or you are about to be seriously educated), is a form of water, but not contained the way it is in a sea, a lake, or a well.  And while a hero can sally forth and cross the sea or the lake or enter through the lake, mist seems to happen upon the hero rather than the other way around.

In many of the stories, a hero will be going along, minding his own business, hunting or lazing about with friends in the woods (as one does), and a mist will suddenly surround him, isolate him, and somehow transport him elsewhere – to the Otherworld.

Contrasting as well with your typical image of the sea or the lake, mist is a concealing agent, rather than a revealing one.  Oftentimes, a hero can look down into the sea and have a good view of the bottom (the Voyage of Bran is a good example of this) or the sea or lake is simply an obstacle, a water-path to reach the Otherworld.  Mist provides no such path or view.  It hides, confuses, and changes.  The Tuatha de Danaan use it to hide their arrival to Ireland.  It appears when Dyfed is put under a magical curse in Manawydan son of Llyr.  In Echtrae Cormaic, a mist allows Cormac and his men passage to Manannan’s palace.  Cu Chulainn passes through mist in Bricriu’s Feast during an Otherworldly encounter. Quite often, when a hero wanders into the mist in familiar territory, he comes out of it in another world.

On your average day, this path just leads up to a field, but today... it seems like it should lead somewhere else

What does this mean?  What does it prove?  What have you learned from this post?  Maybe nothing at all.  I’m still thinking about it.  What does seem to be the case, though, is that water continues to be one of the popular means by which heroes are tossed into an adventure, and mist is one of these sorts, but a rather unique one.  Mist seems to be almost an entity on its own, a lot less passive than the sea or a lake, one that can draw a hero in without his realizing it.

I know that I understand why people were so willing to believe in other worlds here in Scotland.  The mist makes it seem like anything could happen. For a few more pictures, check out my travel blog: Searching for Dragons in Scotland.

So for all of you who, like me, are still searching for that path to alter realms, have you been noticing any misty banks rolling about that seem curiously wishful of your company?  You might just try letting one catch up with you… if you dare.

Happy New Year! Samhuinn Night: Pageantry, Heroism, and Tradition

Beautifully dressed representative of summer walking down the Mile toward her inevitable doom...

Last night, I had the privilege of watching the pageantry of the Samhuinn festival on the Royal Mile in Edinburgh.  It is quite handy living right on the street.  I was able to slip out onto the road and await the line of vividly painted and dressed people, some wielding giant puppets, and then follow the procession down to the stage outside of St Giles Cathedral to watch the reenactment of the Summer King’s fall at the blade of the Winter King.  The parade may not be that old, relatively speaking, but the traditional view of Samhuinn goes back a very, very long time.

Today is the first day of a new year… Well, it would be if you were Irish or Scottish and living oh, say, several centuries ago.  The Celtic year concluded at the end of October on Samhuinn (pronounced “SA-winn”) and the new year began in November.  As far as the stories go, it was the most important day of the year.

Traditionally, Samhuinn (the Scottish spelling; Irish spellings include the old Samain or the more modern Samhain) is the day when the barrier between this world and the Otherworld is at its thinnest.  It is on Samhuinn night that mythic creatures can pass through to this side of the world, or, according to some more creepy stories, when the dead come back to walk the world.  Thus, we have Hallowe’en and all of our skeletons and ghosts and ghouls.

Incidentally, Samhuinn Night is also an excellent night for a hero to have an adventure.  Things just tend to happen more often on Samhuinn.  Countless stories in Irish mythology introduce their hero and then insert the phrase “And it was Samhuinn…”  Samhuinn is simply a good time for things to happen and magic to become more visible and accessible to the heroes and heroines of the stories:

 “For on Samain nothing could ever be hidden in the fairy-mounds.” (The Boyhood Deeds of Finn, Cross and Slover 366)

For instance, it was on Samhuinn that the “love god” figure of Irish legend, Oengus Mac Og was able to finally discover where the magical girl he’d been dreaming about could be found (she transformed into a swan on a lake, for your information).  On Samhuinn, she changed from maiden to swan or back again, alternating years as one or the other.  Luckily, since Oengus was a god, he was able to transform himself accordingly to stay with the girl he loved.  I know, digustingly romantic.

The winter wolves glide through the streets with glowing red eyes...

Countless battles and adventures mention, almost incidentally, that they occur on or around Samhuinn.  But the references are probably a lot more deliberate than they seem.  In The Boyhood Deeds of Finn, for example, the story sees fit to mention not once but thrice that “The time was Samain”, just to make sure the reader knows.  Samhuinn was a time of gathering for the kings of the land, a time of festival and feasting, and a time of battle and adventure (before winter struck and going on long outdoor treks became much less appealing).  Irish myths rarely mark time clearly, but two of the most notable ways that they do is to describe the timelessness of the Otherworld and to establish the time as Beltaine or Samhuinn.

I’ve talked before about the Celtic fondness for the time-between-times and place-betwee-places concepts.  Eventide, crossroads, and the changing of summer to winter all hold significance in storytelling for the Irish.  Not only do they provide a place for the Otherworld to connect in some strange way with the mundane world, but they are used to move a story forward and give it life.

The Winter Court celebrates its victory over summer... I cannot say I celebrated with them.

This tradition has come a long way up to modern times.  Stories of the Fair Folk, the Wee Folk, the mysteries of Samhuinn’s Eve, and Otherworldly adventures still seem to press upon our minds.

Yesterday, my Gaedhlig professor, a sweet Scottish woman with the most cheerful accent you can imagine, told a story of two men in the Highlands who came across a “wee faerie man” which, as she said, “is not at all uncommon, if you happen to be in the Highlands, as you yourself probably know.”  After she tells her lovely story of the wee faerie man who awards the first man a sack of gold but kills the next for ruining his song, she adds, “It is probably best to avoid wee faerie men, then, isn’t it?”  This is probably true.  The Otherworld is certainly dangerous, but we can’t help looking for it anyway, can we?

As the feasting draws to an end, the fires are roaring and the crowd quiets as they prepare to listen to the storyteller, perhaps a mere bard, or maybe a filidh, if they are lucky. He would choose one of the many popular stories, familiar tales of heroes such as Cu Chulainn, Lug, Nuada Silverhand, and Queen Medb.  They always know that things are about to get interesting when the poet adds the words, “And it was Samhuinn…”

*For more pictures of the pageant, check out my travel blog: Searching For Dragons in Scotland!*